Russian held as agent studied US groups' cyberdefenses in grad school

A year before federal prosecutors accused Maria Butina of operating as a secret agent for the Russian government, she was a graduate student at American University working on a sensitive project involving cybersecurity.

Butina's college assignment called for her to gather information on the cyberdefenses of U.S. nonprofit organizations that champion media freedom and human rights, The Associated Press has learned. It was information that could help the groups plug important vulnerabilities, but also would be of interest to the Russian government.

In fact, the Russians previously had in their sights at least two of the groups that she and other students interacted with.

Butina participated in the project under the tutelage of a respected professor who advised the State Department on cybersecurity matters. It was carried out for the nonprofit group Internews, which works extensively with the U.S. government to bolster the free flow of information in dangerous parts of the world and has drawn Russian ire with some of its programs in Russia and neighboring countries.

Internews confirmed Butina's involvement and a broad description of what the project involved. A lawyer for Butina did not respond to a request for comment.

Butina's project raised few eyebrows before her July arrest, despite the fact that news reports already had posed questions about her rapid rise from selling furniture in Siberia and her ties with Kremlin officials.

As part of the project, a small group of students led by Butina was given a list of Internews partners working on human rights and press freedom issues for research purposes only, with the understanding that they not be contacted without consultation. But the students contacted some of the groups anyway, according to people involved in the project who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to describe the work.

An individual who has worked on U.S. programs in Ukraine told the AP that after Butina's arrest he was briefed by U.S. officials who expressed concern that two Internews programs in Ukraine -- dealing with media freedom and cybersecurity, and funded by the State Department -- may have been exposed to Russian intelligence and may be at risk due to Butina's student work.

State Department spokesman Robert Palladino said the department was not involved with the Internews project Butina worked on.

"We have verified that all documents Internews provided to its students were publicly available, and we remain confident in the integrity of the State Department's programs with Internews," he said.

Kostiantyn Kvurt, who heads a local nonprofit that Internews helped establish, Internews Ukraine, said he was unaware of Butina's project before being informed of it by the AP, but already was wary of potential Russian intelligence interference.

"If they understand how to break our firewalls, they could find our partners," Kvurt said. "People could get detained, tortured, killed."

Internews said the students were never given access to the group's work or systems.

"The selection of the students and their roles and activities in the research was solely determined by AU faculty," spokeswoman Laura Stein Lindamood said. "Internews is currently reviewing our relationship with university-led student projects."

The access that Butina won through her coursework illustrates how academia and the extensive network of entities that often carry out sensitive, but not classified, work for the U.S. government remain national security vulnerabilities. In this case, all the institutions expected someone else to vet Butina. Internews thought American University stood behind her; the university said it doesn't do background checks and expects the State Department to vet foreign applicants fully before issuing visas.

Prosecutors allege in court documents that attending the university was Butina's "cover" as she cultivated political contacts and ties with the National Rifle Association. They contend she was part of a clandestine political influence campaign directed by a former Russian lawmaker who has been sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department for his alleged ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Butina's student project was led by Eric Novotny, a cybersecurity expert who has a high security clearance as an adviser to the State Department. Novotny told the AP that even after press reports about Butina raised questions about her connections to the Russian government, he was obligated to treat her like any other student.

"I have always observed university policies and rules during my entire academic career," he said.

The university declined comment, citing federal privacy rules.

One of the organizations that Butina contacted, the prominent digital rights organization Electronic Frontier Foundation, had frequent contact with Internews on cybersecurity issues before and had previously been a Russian target.

A June 14, 2017, encrypted email that Butina wrote to cybersecurity director Eva Galperin began: "My name is Maria Butina and I'm the captain of an American University student group doing research on U.S (civil society organizations) and their cyber security challenges. We have several questions about cyber security concerns facing human rights organizations and your expertise would be very beneficial."

The Electronic Frontier Foundation often helps train at-risk civil society groups both in the U.S. and abroad. In 2015, the organization said Google had alerted it to a knockoff EFF site "almost certainly" operated by the infamous Russian cyberespionage ring now widely known as Fancy Bear. U.S. authorities say the hackers -- who rattled the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign by releasing tens of thousands of Democrats' emails -- are members of Russia's military intelligence agency.

Novotny, who was later interviewed by the FBI about Butina, learned his instructions about not reaching out to partners had been ignored when the cybersecurity adviser of one nonprofit called him after becoming suspicious that a Russian student was asking about cyber vulnerabilities. He sternly warned the students not to ignore the protocol.

AP found no evidence that Butina passed any information from the university project to Moscow, but the work allowed her to contact likely Russian targets.